Lately, we’ve been talking about how to decide which test to take. What if you decide to switch from the GRE to the GMAT? That’s what we’ll tackle today! (Next time, we’ll talk about what to do if you want to switch from the GMAT to the GRE.)
How do I study?
The overall way that you want to study doesn’t actually change that much; rather, you’ll just need to change what you are studying, as discussed later in this article.
First, you’ll need to determine whether the way that you’ve already been studying is actually the optimal way. If not, then you’ll need to make some changes, regardless of whether you stick with the GRE or switch to the GMAT.
The GRE and the GMAT are both executive reasoning tests; that is, the test makers want to know how you think and make decisions. You of course need to know content (certain facts, rules, formulas) in order to do well on either test, but that level of study is not enough; you also need to lift yourself to a second level of understanding that allows you to think your way through these sometimes bizarrely-worded problems as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Follow the two links I put in the last paragraph. Take some time to just think about the concepts presented there. Has this been your approach to studying so far? If so, great. Keep thinking and working in that way.
If not, however, recognize that you’re going to need to start studying with this new mindset, regardless of whether you take the GRE or the GMAT.
What are my strengths and weaknesses?
Any time you’re developing or revising a study plan, you’ll want to put together a solid analysis of your strengths and weaknesses.
If you have been studying for the GRE for a while, then you should have some practice CAT data. (If not, or if it has been more than 6 weeks since you last took a CAT, then you’ll need to take one to get the data. Make sure to take the test under official conditions, including the essays, length of breaks, and so on.)
Analyze your most recent two CATs (this link tells you how to analyze Manhattan Prep CATs). If you haven’t taken MPrep CATs, you can still read through that link to get an idea of how you want to analyze your data from another test. Your goal is to split all question types and content into one of three buckets:
Bucket 1: Strengths. I’ll still study and practice these but not as heavily as other areas.
Bucket 2: Low-hanging Fruit: These are my easiest opportunities for improvement. Careless mistakes. Things that I get wrong fast. Things that I get right but just a little too slowly.
Bucket 3: Weaknesses. These are areas that I’ll ignore until I’ve worked out my Bucket 2 issues. Things that I’m likely to get wrong even if I give myself unlimited time. Things that I get right but way too slowly. Things that use up way too much mental energy, even if I get them right.
Your primary focus until your next practice test will be working a lot to improve Bucket 2, while maintaining Bucket 1 skills and getting Bucket 3 questions wrong fast (yes, seriously!).
[Aside: there are certain things that will stay in Bucket 3 forever. I’m terrible at combinatorics and I’m pretty bad at 3D geometry. That’s been true since my very first practice GRE, more than 10 years ago! When I see these, I’ll give it a look in case the problem is very similar to one that I do remember how to do, but otherwise, I pick my favorite letter and move on.]
Okay, now that you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, you need to familiarize yourself with the differences between the GRE and the GMAT.
What new things do I have to learn?
The Essays and Integrated Reasoning
You won’t care as much about one difference, so let’s get it out of the way. At the beginning of the GRE, you write two essays. The GMAT also asks you to write an essay but in place of the second essay you’ll have to do the Integrated Reasoning section, a multiple-choice section that mixes quant and verbal skills.
This section is different enough from the others that you will have to study how to answer these questions and how to manage your time during the section. At the time of this publication (in March 2015), schools aren’t using IR scores much, so this section is less important, though this could change in the future.
Next, for the quant section of the test, you’re going to need to learn about one different question type contained on the GMAT: Data Sufficiency (DS).
The GMAT dives more deeply into number properties, story problems, and some algebra concepts, so you may need to get GMAT books for these topics versus continuing to use your GRE books.
The timing on the two tests is also quite different, so you’ll have to learn how to handle 37 questions in 75 minutes on the GMAT, or about 2 minutes per question on average.
Most of your new efforts on verbal will be geared towards the grammar question type, Sentence Correction (SC). You’ll definitely need to get some materials that teach you the grammar and meaning issues that are tested on SC.
Again, if you are already using Manhattan Prep materials, you can use what you already have for Reading Comprehension (RC), but you will need to get new materials for Critical Reasoning (CR). The CR question types on the GRE are also tested on the GMAT, but the GMAT contains additional CR question types that don’t appear on the GRE.
Again, the timing will be different on the GMAT. You’ll need to answer 41 verbal questions in 75 minutes, spending about 1 minute 20 seconds on SC, 2 minutes on CR, and about 6 to 8 minutes total for RC passages and questions.
How do I make a study plan?
We’ve already talked about part of the process (analyzing your strengths and weaknesses). You may decide to take a class or work with a tutor, in which case your teacher will give you specific assignments . If not, you’ll need to develop your own study plan.
Takeaways for switching from GRE to GMAT
(2) Begin your studies by concentrating on the aspects that are new to you: the different question types and topics that are tested on the GMAT. Once you build those skills up to a competent level, you’ll review all aspects and question types.
Most business schools now accept both the GRE and the GMAT, so which one should you take? I’ve written on the topic before but it’s been nearly a year and I’ve got some updates.
The conventional wisdom has been that the math is easier on the GRE. Though many schools do accept the GRE, rumors abound that students who take this test are at a bit of a disadvantage because they are expected to do better on the (easier) quant section. Anecdotally, we have heard a few admissions officers admit that they do think about this (strictly off the record, of course). Most admissions officers, though, have said this doesn’t matter to them at all, including several officers at the top 10 schools.
So we’ve come up with a series of decisions to help you make this choice. The first three questions are “deal-breakers”—that is, a certain answer will point you definitively to a specific test (the GMAT, as it happens). The fourth question is…murkier. We’ll address that in a little bit.
#1: Do all of “your” schools accept the GRE?
This one is obvious. All business schools (that ask for a standardized test score) accept the GMAT. Most—but not all—accept the GRE. If you want to apply to any schools that require the GMAT, such as London Business School MBA (at the time of this publication), then you’ll be taking the GMAT.
#2: Do any of “your” schools prefer the GMAT?
Most schools that accept both tests don’t express a preference between the two. Some schools, though, do say that the prefer the GMAT. They publish this preference right on their web site, so go look up all of your schools and see what they say about the GMAT / GRE requirement for admissions.
As of the date of this article, Columbia, Haas (Berkeley) and Anderson (UCLA) all state that they prefer the GMAT, even though they do accept the GRE. If you want to apply to one of these schools, I recommend that you take the GMAT. (Note: these aren’t the only three schools that prefer the GMAT; I just picked out the three most well-known ones that do. You still need to research your schools!)
#3: Do you want to go into banking or management consulting after b-school?
The major banks and consulting firms ask for GMAT scores when you apply. (Some of them even ask for undergraduate GPA and SAT scores. I think that data is irrelevant after someone has a b-school GPA and GMAT scores but I’m not the one making the hiring decisions!)
In a way, the environmental movement can still be said to be _________ movement, for while it has been around for decades, only recently has it become a serious organization associated with political parties and platforms.
The above sentence is a SE example from the 5Lb Book of GRE Practice Problems, #89. Today’s discussion explores a third element of sentence structure that is easily overlooked – pronouns! They can greatly help you clarify the meaning of a sentence. (And if you didn’t notice already, do you see what I did in the previous sentence? They – did this pronoun catch your eye?)
The challenge with pronouns isn’t that they are difficult to address, it’s that they are nearly invisible to us, because we have spent our entire adult lives ignoring them when we read and speak. As a test, how many pronouns have I used just in this short paragraph?
Here’s one way I want you to ‘see’ the earlier SE example:
In a way, the environmental movement can still be said to be ________ movement, for while it has been around for decades, only recently has it become a serious organization associated with political parties and platforms.
Stop mid-sentence, and address those ‘it’s. This mental exercise is not about finding the target, clues, and pivots, although you should be aware a pronoun could certainly be the target. This is about making sure you understand the sentence. Mentally, you should read the sentence as
While studying for the GRE Text Completion (TC) and Sentence Equivalence (SE) questions, you naturally want to study vocabulary. After all, that’s what the test is testing, right?
Yes and no. The GRE does test vocabulary, but it also tests your ability to analyze a sentence and divine the author’s intended meaning. (And for those of you keeping score at home, did I use the word ‘divine’ correctly? Are you familiar with this less common usage?)
And so, we preach (sorry, with the word ‘divine’ earlier, I had to!) a method for TC and SE that involves identifying the Target, Clues, and Pivots in the sentence. All well and good, but how do you to this? Here’s where the following limited grammar discussion should help, because although the GRE does not directly test grammar, a little grammar knowledge can be immensely helpful!
We begin with the core elements that every sentence contains: the subject and the verb. Separating the subjecting and the verb from other elements (which I will generically call descriptors) is part 1 of my TC and SE analysis. Part 2 is matching each descriptor to what it describes.
So let’s see two examples. One is a TC example from Lesson 1, the other is a SE example from the 5 lb. Book.
Distractions are bad. Routine, concentration, and hard work are good. These all seem like common-sense rules for studying, right? Surprisingly (for many people, at least), learning science tells us that these “good habits” may actually be hurting your learning process!
When you were in college, your study process probably looked something like this: for a given class, you’d attend a lecture each week, do the readings (or at least most of them), and maybe turn in an assignment or problem set. Then, at the end of the semester, you’d spend a week furiously cramming all of that information to prepare for the test.
Since this is the way you’ve always studied, it’s probably how you’re approaching the GRE, too. But I have bad news: this is not an effective approach for the GRE!
Taking notes then cramming the night before the test is beneficial for tests that ask you to recite knowledge: “what were the major consequences of the Hawley-Smoot tariff” or “explain Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.” You can hold a lot of facts -for a brief time – in your short-term memory when cramming. You memorize facts, you spit them out for the test… and then, if you’re like me, you find that you’ve forgotten half of what you memorized by the next semester.
Why the GRE is Different
The GRE doesn’t reward this style of studying because it’s not simply a test of facts or knowledge. The GRE requires you to know a lot of rules, of course, but the main thing that it’s testing is your ability to apply those concepts to new problems, to adapt familiar patterns, and to use strategic decision-making. You’ll never see the same problem twice. Even with vocabulary, you need a robust understanding of words, not just memorized definitions.
So, at the risk of boring you with some personal information, my girlfriend is planning on taking the GRE this spring. And, of course, she wants my advice. While thinking about how to best help her, it occurred to me that many of the things I’m telling her apply to everyone who is beginning her GRE preparations.
- Vocabulary is much more than just flash cards.
So you will, of course, be studying vocabulary. And one of the most effective ways to create a base vocab level is to create flash cards. Let’s be honest, some of this is just memorization, pure and simple. But if you stop at flashcards, you’re not preparing yourself for the GRE. The test will ask you to use your vocabulary in context, so why not study that way? Take a deck of 10-20 cards, and use each word in a sentence (bonus if you can get more than one in the same sentence!) to make a story. Anything you can think of that will push your vocabulary studies beyond flat memorization is helpful.
- The quantitative sections test strategy selection, not math.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Quantitative Comparison questions. Do you need to know math? Of course. Will math by itself get you a great score on the GRE? A resounding, definitive NO.
Think about it for a moment: you need to do some of these math questions in 60 seconds. There is no such thing as a challenging math question that can be answered in one minute; the GRE can’t be testing math, because the math simply isn’t at a terribly high level. There is no calculus, no trig. So what is the GRE testing, if not math?
It’s testing your ability to quickly and accurately analyze an abstract problem (in a mathematics context) and select a method that will supply an answer. Many times, if not the majority of the time, application of pure mathematics to arrive at an exact answer is wasting your time. So what other methods are there? Sometimes you’ll just want to throw numbers at a problem; other times, you may want to estimate a “close enough” answer.
The key is to REVIEW the questions you do, and identify exactly WHY a particular strategy is the best! While there are some general guidelines, the key is to identify why you like a particular strategy for a given problem.
What follows is the reason I wrote this post. The above is important, but I left the best for last!!
- You need a plan.
After all, it’s the New Year and we’re all trying to keep up with resolutions. What is a resolution? A commitment. A plan. You need one.
One challenge you may face is direct: how do you maintain the energy to study, and study well, after an exhausting day of work? In thinking of how to address this, I have tried to apply a method commonly used in a non-test preparation setting: exercise. (Again with the New Year’s Resolution theme, I guess!)
You need a plan, and you need variation in that plan. For example, many weight training programs alternate exercises by muscle group. Marathon trainers recommend switching exercises; you’re not running every day. And also, very importantly, you need REST.
So how does this apply to a GRE study plan? You can model your GRE plan on an exercise regimen; in an odd way, exercise is what you’re doing – exercising particular skills in the hope that these skills will improve. Here’s a sample plan for one week’s worth of GRE studies. (Important note: Just as you warm up before beginning an exercise routine, there is an unstated warm-up for each of these days: vocabulary. Each study session should begin with a vocabulary warm-up, and end with a vocabulary cool-down.)
Day 1: Intense Quant. Pick an area of math tested on the GRE, and push yourself to learn as much of this math as you can, both by reading and working problems (and REVIEW! Always review your work!). Maybe you’ve decided to learn everything there is to know about exponents? Or maybe you want to find out all the ways the GRE will test circle geometry?
Day 2: Text Completion. Do a set of one blank TC questions, then a set of 2-blank TC questions, and finally a set of 3-blank TC questions. What were some similarities in how you addressed the different questions? Where there any differences? Did you find a particular type more or less difficult?
Day 3: Rest. This is your day for outside reading. What novel, periodical, or journal are you reading that, while not directly related to the GRE, uses GRE level vocabulary? Or are you perhaps reading some science journals, because you really struggle with science-based Reading Comprehension passages?
Day 4: Quant v. 2.0. Dive into a particular question type. Maybe you want to focus on Data Interpretation questions, or perhaps you want to examine strategies for Quantitative Comparison questions?
Day 5: Reading Comprehension. Time to do the longest passage(s) you can find! Do you have a strategy to read effectively? And does your method for answering a RC question change based on how specific the question is?
Day 6: Vocabulary. This is the day to pull old vocabulary words into the more current studies. What words did you learn 4 days ago? 10 days ago? Note that this goes beyond just “what words will I learn today?” This is the day to create connections between words you learned in the last few days with words you learned a few weeks ago.
Day 7: Rest. Truly rest today. No GRE stress at all!
There are a few things you should keep in mind looking at the above plan:
- It’s a model, not a prescription. This is meant merely to show you the kind of plan you can create on a weekly basis; it’s not a “Do This and Exactly This!” thing.
- This is for one week; you should plan on several months of GRE preparation. Each week’s plan should change a bit – you want a plan, with planned variety!
- Just as you don’t spend 4 hours at the gym, you shouldn’t try to study for four hours. Take it one hour at a time; if you’re going to double-up, give yourself some rest in between study sessions.
- Take your practice tests, but take them purposefully! Check out this post for how that’s done.
Finally, I highly recommend you read this next!
So you’ve just taken a practice test. Chances are, you didn’t get a perfect 340. (If you did, stop studying and come work for us!). You probably didn’t even get a score that you like yet. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, though. In fact, you’ve barely started, because…
REVIEWING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS!!
Most people take tests, then look at the score, then click on the explanations to the ones they got wrong. Their review process takes about 15 minutes, and just involves “oh, I did that wrong. Oh, that’s the right answer.” This kind of review process teaches you next to nothing about how to do better on the next one.
So here’s what you need to do. The test gave you a score from 130-170 on accuracy, but you need to give yourself your own score on your review process. Here’s how it works…
For every single question – not just the ones you got wrong! – you should be going back and re-solving. Take yourself through this checklist for quant problems:
1) Did I fully understand the concept and the rules behind it? +1
Give yourself a point if you could tell that a question was asking about DIVISIBILITY, or understood the RATE x TIME = DISTANCE relationship.
2) Did I understand what the question was asking for? +1
Did you rephrase DS questions to pinpoint what they were really asking for? Did you notice that it asked for “Amy’s age in 5 years,” and wrote down A + 5 instead of just A? Did you understand what it means when they ask for “x in terms of y and z”?
3) Did you solve it correctly? up to +5
Give yourself up to 5 points if you solved correctly the first time and got the right answer. Subtract a point or two if you took longer than you should have, or made a mistake before ultimately correcting it. Only give yourself +1 for a random lucky guess and +2 for an educated guess.
4) … or if you didn’t solve correctly, did you make a good decision to skip? +2
You’re not aiming to get every single question right on the GRE. Some may be too hard to solve in the time given! So you should pat yourself on the back whenever you recognize that a question is too hard to solve, and you make the decision not to attempt it. Lock in an educated guess and save that extra time for a problem that is doable for you.
You’ve been prepping for the GRE for a while (or maybe you’ve just started), and you’re trying to gather as much information as possible. But because no one knows exactly what will be on the GRE until you sit down to take it, there’s a lot of misinformation out there!
Some of this misinformation is left over from the old GRE (pre-2011), which was very different in structure and somewhat different in content from the current form. Not everything that was true about the old GRE is true about the new one. Some misinformation, though, is just the product of assumptions made from very little data.
So let’s dispel some of those myths here…
1. You have to memorize a ton of big, fancy vocabulary.
False! The old GRE tested a lot more of these million-dollar words – words like pusillanimous, flagitious, or escutcheon. For this reason, lots of lists of “GRE words” on the internet still contain mostly these ultra-fancy words that no one actually uses. (The old GRE also had a question type called “antonyms” in which you had to pick the opposite of a word without any sentence context whatsoever! The new GRE only uses vocab in context.)
On the current GRE, almost all of the vocabulary you’ll see on Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence (TC and SE) will be words that you probably already know. These are the medium-difficulty words that you’d be likely to read in the New York Times or The Economist – words like impartiality, debilitating, or superfluous* .
These TC and SE questions are in part testing your vocabulary knowledge, but far more importantly, they’re testing your ability to parse the logic of a sentence. You’ll see many sentences with simple vocabulary, but with complex structures, including transitions, contrasts, or flips. Your ability to follow the logic of clues like “however,” “rather than,” “would not have been,” etc, and make inferences from them will affect your verbal score more than the impressiveness of your vocabulary will.
So to do well on TC and SE, you don’t need to memorize the dictionary! You probably already know more than three quarters of the words you’ll encounter (although you’ll want a moderate dose of studying for those words that you don’t already know). You should spend a good amount of time understanding and analyzing those complex sentence structures, in addition to just memorizing words.
2. You don’t really need the calculator.
This is another misconception leftover from the old GRE, which didn’t let you use a calculator. Many of the practice questions that you’ll find in online searches or in prep guides are leftovers from the old test, because the topics (algebra, geometry, word problems) have not changed from the old test to the new. These older questions are all doable without a calculator, which leads some students to believe that they’ll never need it.
You’ll certainly see questions on the new GRE that are doable without a calculator (and many that are easier to do without a calculator). However, a lot of students are surprised at how many questions on the test require good calculator use. You’re likely to see at least a handful of questions that ask you to multiply or divide “messy” numbers – something like 62 x 83. Sure, you could do that by hand, but when the clock is ticking it’s much more effective to use the calculator.
You’ll still see many problems on which common sense, concept knowledge, and/or mental math are more effective than the calculator. And if you find that you’re using the calculator on more than half of problems, you’re relying on it too much! But you should take the time to practice with the onscreen calculator to make sure that you’re comfortable with using it effectively.
3. Just learning the rules is enough.
Not true! Knowing the rules and concepts is of course necessary to do well, but you also need good time management and stamina to do well.
Taking a 4 hour test is a very grueling experience, and if you’re not used to being under that much mental pressure for that long, you’ll get exhausted! That can take a big toll on your score for the last few sections. Make sure you take several timed practice tests before the real event, and do them under the same time constraints as the real test (no extra breaks, no pauses). Train yourself like you would train for a marathon!
And of course, make sure to get a good night’s sleep – not just the night before the test, but for at least 3 nights before the test – and eat a good meal an hour or two before the test.
Make sure you’re pacing yourself well in each section. If time runs out, you lose points on the questions you didn’t get to. Don’t be afraid to skip the ones you don’t know, to get to the ones that you can solve.
There’s nothing I can tell you that will actually make the test fun to take, but knowing what you’re up against can certainly make the experience less intimidating!
Studying for the GRE? Take a free GRE practice exam, or try out one of our upcoming free Manhattan GRE trial classes, running all the time near you, or online. And, be sure to find us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and follow us on Twitter!
The thing to keep in mind when it comes to anxiety is that your body is actually doing you a favor. Anxiety is associated with a host of different bodily responses, all of which are amping you up to perform your best: the stress hormone cortisol becomes active in your system; your heart beats faster; you are engaged and alert and attentive. These might not always feel good, but they are helpful! Consider the alternative: how well would test prep go if you were taking a survey on Which “Game of Thrones” Character Are You? Unless you’re obsessed with becoming like Tyrion Lannister, you probably won’t experience a huge amount of anxiety while taking a survey such as this, and so you won’t be as engaged as attentive as you really can be. Anxiety is normal and, in the long run, will help you do your best.
There are, however, instances in which anxiety can lead to reductions in performance. Anxiety can interfere when you’re staring down a problem that, at first glance, appears unsolvable. It can stop you from opening your strategy guide to study after a long day of work. And it can undermine your performance on Test Day if it gets in the way of beneficial problem-solving habits.
So there are times when we might want to do what psychologists call “downregulating” our anxiety. There are several ways to accomplish this.
Before Test Day
- Practice good study habits. Anxiety can build up when we feel we are not doing our best to study and prepare for the test. Be diligent and consistent in the amount of time you spend studying each week. By maintaining this consistency, you can keep up your sense of control over your own outcome and not feel overwhelmed or inundated.
– Exercise. A healthy mind requires a healthy body. Studies have shown that even taking a seemingly insignificant ten-minute walk per day can have significant effects on reducing stress hormones in your body and adding the kinds of endorphins needed to stay positive and productive.
- Keep things in perspective. One principle cause of anxiety is the feeling that the GRE is everything. In fact, though, people have the tendency to overestimate the importance of seemingly big events. In other words, while it may feel like the GRE looms large right now, and that the future hangs in the balance, remember that there are an infinite number of ways and routes to accomplishing your objectives. Whatever the outcome of this test, you will find a way to navigate toward what you want to do. Studies show that you are more resilient than you give yourself credit for.
On Test Day
– Get excited! Because of the variety of neurochemicals zipping around in your bloodstream on this important day, your body is humming like a finely tuned racecar. A recent study has shown that a technique called reappraisal can help you harness this energy toward positive performance. The idea is simple: as you evaluate your feelings before and during the test experience, tell yourself repeatedly, “I’m excited!” What this does is help the brain interpret your physiological symptoms as instances of competence and control—which, given how ready you are for this test, is exactly what they are!
– Breathe. Eastern traditions like yoga and meditation give extremely helpful lessons for keeping a cool head as you face the test. One such lesson is a breathing technique called ujjayi breath, a strategy that calls for a slow, steady breath in and out through the nose, creating a slight constriction in the back of the throat which causes a small but perceptible oceanic sound in the throat and sinuses. Taking five or ten instances of slow, purposeful breath can do wonders for your stress levels.
- Remember what you practiced. Stress and anxiety can sometimes cause people to search in the moment for new, untested approaches to solving problems. Resist this urge. Recall the hours you spent practicing problems just like this and stick to the techniques and strategies you have learned in your preparation. You are ready for this test, and have all the tools and strategies you need! By having faith in your preparation and sticking with what you know, you will be able to resist feeling anxious and instead devote all your mental resources to doing your best.
Studying for the GRE take a free GRE practice exam, or try out one of our upcoming free Manhattan GRE trial classes, running all the time near you, or online. And, be sure to find us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and follow us on Twitter!
For me, the material you need to study for the GRE can be divided into two groups. No, not verbal and math. Knowledge and skills. Differentiating these two groups is important because they are learned in very different ways.
So far, I would bet that most of your study time, from elementary school through college, was devoted to learning information. The skill of remembering facts is something that most of us have practiced quite a bit in the school realm. And sure, some of us are better than others at doing so, but mostly we at least have an idea where to start.
The knowledge, or information and facts, tested on the GRE would include vocabulary words, properties of numbers, mathematical definitions, and mathematical formulas.
I’ve written in the past about lots of unique ways to learn vocabulary, but ultimately I think that the techniques for learning knowledge fit into four categories:
(1) Drill. This would include writing words and definitions, making and reviewing flashcards, listing out numbers that fit a certain property, and writing and re-writing formulae. All these methods have their place.
(2) Explain. It’s generally easier to remember something if you understand it. For that reason, trying to explain a fact is a good way to learn it. This category would include studying with a partner, defining a word using its roots, and proving a mathematical formula.
(3) Link. Tying new information to information you already know is a good way to remember it. This would include finding a vocabulary word in a TV show or song, linking a word to its antonym, using one math formula to remember another, or building more specific geometry rules from the rules you already know.
(4) Use. I find that the saying “use it or lose it” is pretty applicable to learning. This category would include using new vocabulary in conversation or emails, writing sentences with vocab words, and doing practice math exercises.
There’s probably not that much new here so far. But that’s the key: we’re only halfway done.
That’s not enough!
Many students feel frustrated with the GRE because they feel like they know and understand the underlying math or vocabulary, but still aren’t seeing their scores improve as much as they would like. If you’re in the boat, don’t panic!
If you feel like you understand the underlying material but aren’t seeing your score improve as quickly as you’d like, or even at all, it might be that you’ve only worked on the knowledge and haven’t yet worked on the skills. Or, you’ve worked on the skills, but in the wrong way.
It’s not that your time has been wasted – you need that underlying knowledge to succeed on the test. But on its own, it won’t be enough.
So, what are the skills we need, and how do we learn them?
Skills are learned differently than knowledge. You didn’t make flashcards to learn to play the piano. You didn’t learn to ice skate by writing the names of ice skating moves over and over in a book.
If you want to know the capital of Maine, and you don’t know, there’s no way to figure it out on your own. You have to look it up, and once you look it up, at least for that moment, you know the answer. That’s knowledge, and it’s often learned in that way: don’t know, give up, look at the answer, know, repeat.
Skills don’t work like that. If you show up at a piano lesson, and the teacher asks you to play a song for the first time, you’ll probably try it and make a lot of mistakes. What then? Well, what you don’t do is ask the teacher to play it for you and then say, “Oh yeah, that sounds right – I got it now!” and then move on without ever looking at it again.
I hope that piano lesson scenario sounds crazy to you. And similarly, I hope you can see why doing a math problem, getting it wrong, reading the answer, understanding it, and moving on is equally crazy. Being able to solve a math problem requires some underlying knowledge, but ultimately, it’s a skill, like playing the piano or running a marathon.
Because of that, you have to practice it like a skill. The skills on the GRE would include things such as solving a multiple choice geometry problem, solving a quantitative comparison question, guessing on a quantitative comparison question, solving a sentence completion question, staying calm during a timed exam, and deciding when to move on from a question.
How do you practice skills? Generally, I would employ a 4-part process:
(1) Try it timed. Just like the piano student in the above example, you should give the problem a try from the beginning. This lets you practice your own set of testing skills: assessing the problem, timing, guessing, and moving on.
(2) Re-work untimed. What do you think that piano teacher would have the student do next? Most likely, go back and try to work on the parts of the song that were hard. Similarly, you should go back and try to work on the problem on your own. See if you can get unstuck and get yourself to the right answer.
At this stage, the piano teacher might also interject some tips or reminders. You can do the same for yourself by using resources such as your strategy guides, other problems you’ve done, or definitions you don’t remember if you need them.
(3) Use the answers (sparingly). If that piano student is really stuck, the teacher might show him or her what to do – but only until the student gets unstuck. You should do the same with your answers. If you need to, start reading the answer, but only until you come across something you did wrong and didn’t recognize. Then, stop, and go back to working on your own as far as you can. Repeat this process as needed.
(4) Record a take-away. When you’re playing the piano, you create muscle memory that lets you reuse what you’ve learned in other contexts later. Recording a take-away has a similar effect. This is the chance to look back at the problem and say, “Hmm, what could I have seen/known from the beginning that would have let me get this problem right the first time?” Then, write down a sentence that takes the form of, “When I see _________ in a problem, ____________________,” where the first blank tells you what trigger to look for, and the second blank tells you what to remember, what rule to apply, what to think about, or what you can expect to happen in the answer.
It’s not that most of us have never learned a skill – all of us have. Even if you haven’t played a sport or a musical instrument, you probably know how to drive, use a computer, and do all kinds of unique things at your job. It’s just that we don’t often apply those skill-learning skills to academic tasks – but for the GRE, they will make a big difference.